“Everybody says New York is down,” said Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, referring to what was once known as the "City Game."
“Lot of people,” said Walker. “That’s what I’m hearing.”
In fact, he’s hearing right.
Whether deserved or not, New York City basketball — once considered America’s greatest natural resource of point guards — is perceived to have fallen on hard times.
The reasons are many. First, the perennially decrepit state of New York’s flagship franchise, the Knicks, leads to great prejudice against the city’s standing. Second, a lot of players tend not to stay in New York, opting for transfer to faraway prep schools. Third, and most important: the hype. Nobody can live up to it.
There’s no shortage of New York point guards. There are two on television (Mark Jackson and Kenny Smith) and three starting in the Elite Eight (Florida’s Erving Walker, the aforementioned Kemba Walker and Arizona’s Momo Jones, but more on that in a moment).
The history is outrageously rich, one that includes Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkens and Nate Archibald. But in more recent decades, the typical schoolyard superstar can’t escape the legend of his own youth. It’s not that Pearl Washington or Stephon Marbury or Kenny Anderson or Sebastian Telfair were failures per se. It’s that they could never exceed the expectations they engendered as teenagers.
And that brings me back to Kemba Walker. With UConn having won eight games in 16 days — a stretch that has seen Walker average 27 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds — the point guard has attained sudden legend-hood. He’s been the most exciting player in the NCAA tournament.
Still, none of it surprises Momo Jones. “Everything he’s done this year,” said Jones, “I’ve seen him do it before.”
The way Momo remembers, they met on a sixth-grade traveling team, a squad called Team Rock. Kemba was from the Bronx. Momo was from Harlem. Even back then, Momo was thicker and more muscular. Kemba was faster, shiftier, and not yet the scorer he would become.
“He really worked on that jump shot,” said Momo. “There was a time when you could step back and just let him shoot.”
Soon enough, they became best friends and matriculated at Rice High School, where they practiced ferociously against each other, always chirping and chippy. Their mutual disdain for losing and fear of backing down became the basis for what Jones describes as “a great brotherhood.”
But after two years, with a high school backcourt that might well have been America’s best, he transferred to American Christian Academy in Pennsylvania. “I regret not playing with him,” Jones said of Kemba. “But he understood. That’s the friendship I have with him.”
Jones is vague when asked why he left. “It was personal,” he said. “Sometimes people have to do what they have to do.” But the more he spoke, the more it became clear that he had to escape from New York.
Now he speaks of “channeling the animosity, putting it in this little box.” But already he had seen too much, and the worst of it was having to walk by the corner where his stepfather was murdered.
The man’s name was Clarence Sims, known as C.J., and he had played ball at A. Phillip Randolph High School. His death, as Jones describes it, came as an innocent victim caught in a crossfire. Lamont, whom C.J. nicknamed Momo, was then 8. It is reasonable to think that Jones never got over the loss, nor, in a way, does he want to forget.
Momo has dedicated most of his right arm to C.J. Tattooed to his shoulder is a basketball, held in prayerful hands with a rosary. The ink on his forearm is more elaborate, like a tapestry running from the crook of his elbow to the wrist. It reads, in part: “If I could turn back the hands of time . . .”
One imagines Momo would return to St. Nicholas Park. There, at the corner of 129th Street and St. Nicholas Terrace, C.J. would take Momo every available morning and drill the kid, hoping to make him into a player. “He pushed me and pushed me and pushed me and pushed me to get here,” says Momo.
Here, meaning the big-time.
Momo and Kemba keep getting asked about going against each other in the Elite Eight. And they keep saying that it’s nothing personal. “It’s not Kemba versus Momo,” Jones said the other night. “It’s Arizona versus UConn.”
Just the same, it’s the best thing to happen to New York basketball in awhile. It’s the kind of game in which one player could add to his legend, or another become one.
“He would have loved it,” Jones said of C.J.
Sure, whatever happens tonight for Momo and Kemba, it will beat the hype they heard as kids.